The BEST: Ode to a Potsherd

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The BEST: Ode to a Potsherd
Steven Fine

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This potsherd, 11.5 cm in length, is made of red clay, cured in a kiln. It is typical of 5-6th century C.E. pottery from the Gaza region. It derives from one of the stronger points on the vessel, and includes a portion of its round lip. Our pot was decorated with an incised stripe at its widest point, made up of parallel lines—an aesthetic flare, created with a comb as the clay whirled around on a hand-powered wheel. A looped handle was pressed into the body of this storage pot before it was placed in the kiln, leaving behind the thumbprint of the artisan. It was found near Ashkelon in 1975.

We can well imagine the rest of the pot from this small piece. It was a storage pot, with a large rounded body (archaeologists can easily say how large). With simple testing, we could even know what was stored within, whether wine or olive oil or something else. We could know exactly where it was made. Today this pot sherd resides on my window sill, in Riverdale, NY.

WHY IS IT THE BEST? It isn’t. It isn’t even very good. This is not the Grecian urn of Keat’s ode, which caused the British romantic poet to reflect “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all.” It has no “Attic shape” to ponder, but rather is a fragment of a mundane ancient storage container. 

Still, it is sufficient that I collected this piece as a teen and have protected and enjoyed this unassuming sherd for more than forty years. For me, this artifact is like “the woods” of Frost’s famous poem, rhapsodized by R. Aharon Lichtenstein. 

Through this worthless piece of clay, I bring a whole world to my windowsill. It is something of a relic— of the wonder of a teen from a San Diego suburb that such things exist; of its very tactility, strength, and capacity to crumble if knocked off the shelf—whether by an earthquake, or a broomstick—after slumbering in the red ground of Ashkelon for 1500 years. 

Who made this pot? How much was he paid? Who bought it from him? How many children did his work feed, and did his wife survive childbirth? Were they Jewish? If they were, did he and his children see the beautiful artifacts from the Ashkelon synagogue, or perhaps a local church? What of the contents of our pot? Kosher wine or oil, yayin nesekh or shemen akum

What distances did our amphora travel, finally to be broken in Ashkelon—on its way fifteen centuries later to San Diego, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and now New York? 

On top of that, why have I kept it? 

This unassuming sherd certainly “‘provides a spiritual complement’ to my life as commanded worshipper of God,” to paraphrase R. Lichtenstein. It is a connection to both Eretz Yisrael and to my youthful exuberance in getting her dust in my shoes. It was with me as I struggled through hiphel verbs in Hebrew and aphel verbs in Aramaic and aorists in Greek, halakha and aggada, and Josephus, art, geography, and archaeology— marriage, dissertation, book contracts, children, and on…. 

What I have not mentioned is that this sherd sits on a sill next to my collection of mdrashim, siddurim, piyyutim and kinnot. It is a piece with my Hazal text collection, written at about the time that our anonymous artisan made our pot “like clay in the hands of the potter” (to cite a piyyut of later age). 

This potsherd is a fragment from the world of Hazal, a reminder that our Sages were real people who walked the earth, spoke Aramaic peppered with Greek nouns, and lived in a world where pot sherds like mine littered the earth under their feet once broken, and transported their food when whole. 

I am not just looking at the kankan, the pot, but at “that which is in it”—the world that is encoded in the pot. I am suggesting a closeness somewhat more comfortable standing in “the forest” than R. Lichtenstein, perhaps closer to Frost’s experience. 

I am suggesting that the world, high culture and low, was the beit midrash of Hazal— whether on the road with Rabbi Akiva, boarding a ship with Rabban Gamaliel, eating with Rabbi Abbahu, in court with Rabbi Yohanan, singing kinnot in shul with Kallir or contemplating the fascinations and temptations of medinat ha-yam, “the cities of the sea”— places like Ashkelon. Thus, for our Sages “all the world” was not only “a stage” (yes, a Shakespeare reference), but a beit va’ad le-Hakhamim.

When all is said and done, though, our potsherd is just a fragment, a piece of a now broken whole. At Hanukkah, it can remind of the sealed container of oil of our beloved Talmudic aggadata, and on Pesach of the storage vessel for the transporting the four cups of the seder. On Tisha b’Av it reminds of all that is broken and lost and fragmentary, of the great now fallen, and of the broken shard that survives. 

In this short reflection on “The BEST,” then, I offer an “Ode to a Potsherd”— together with my own humble sense that the lessons of Hazal are embedded in both the most mundane piece of broken pottery and the most magnificent “Grecian Urn”— for those who seek Torah.

Steven Fine is a cultural historian, specializing in Jewish history in the Greco-Roman world. He is the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University, and director of the YU Center for Israel Studies.

Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

[Published on July 30, 2020]

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